Continuing my larceny of intellectual property, here’s what appears to be another tape recorded off the hotel TV feed on a trip to Harrogate. It has the same telltale noise at the start, some black to lead in, and a movie certificate, which videos didn’t tend to do.
It still vaguely amuses me to see the Rank logo, in all its old fashioned greatness. Bombardier Billy Wells, that is, bashing the gong.
Strictly Ballroom opens with a red curtain, supposed to invoke the feeling of seeing something in a theatre. Indeed, Baz Luhrmann’s first three films, following this with Romeo + Juliet and then Moulin Rouge, became known as the Red Curtain Trilogy.
If you’ve never seen it, Strictly Ballroom is a sort-of mockumentary about the ballroom dancing scene in rural Australia. It’s not quite This is Spinal Tap which was shot entirely as if it were a documentary. This is still a fictional movie, with no sense that the characters are being followed around by a film crew, but it does include the occasional ‘vox pop’ talking heads, especially in the opening sequence which brilliantly sets up the premise of the film, establishes its vivid colour palette, and lets us know what our hero is up against.
Our hero being Scott Hastings, a young ballroom dancer, groomed for the dance since he was six years old, and not content to dance the same way as everyone else. His ‘flashy, crowd-pleasing steps’ in a local competition shock the old guard of the local ballroom dancing community, and his partner quits because she can’t go along with his rampant rule-flouting.
One person who admires his dancing is learner Fran, played by Tara Morice. You can tell from the way she’s introduced that she’ll probably be the ugly duckling that blossoms into a swan.
She persuades him to teach her to dance better, and tells him she can be his partner. He’s uncertain – she’s a new dancer, he’s been dancing since he was six, but they embark on a training montage.
Things go wrong, though, when, at the dance where he’s going to first dance publicly with Fran, his parents and the local dance promoter try to get Scott paired up with another prominent dancer, Tina Sparkles, whose partner is retiring ‘due to commitments to his landscape gardening business.’ Scott and Fran learn this plan at the same time, before Scott can tell them he intends to dance with Fran. Scott is torn – Tina’s a champion, and he’s been working towards winning the Pan-Pacific championship since he was six years old.
Scott’s mum and the rest of the studio pressure Fran into leaving, hoping Scott will ask Tina to be his partner, but he goes to find Fran instead, who’s gone back to her family, who are Spanish. Her father is very gruff, asking what she’s been doing with Scott, and when he says they’ve been dancing, the father demands Scott shows them a Paso Doble. He does, and Fran’s family start laughing, then her father shows Scott how the dance should be danced, and it ends up with Fran’s grandmother teaching them both to dance it better, more authentically. It’s a charming inversion of the usual trope of the unsupportive family.
Of course, there is still an unsupportive family, but it’s Scott’s, and now they bring out their last weapon – they tell him about his father, who used to be a great dancer, but when he danced in the Pan-Pacific championship he used his own steps, and lost the championship, a loss that almost destroyed him. They persuade Scott to dance with his former partner at the championship, and win it, for his father.
Cut to the Pan Pacific Championship, and Scott’s dancing with Liz, not Fran. Fran’s angry. “What about a life lived in fear.”
Then Scott’s father tells him what really happened years ago. He never danced in the Pan Pacific Championship because his wife was persuaded by Ballroom Bigshot Barry Fife to dance with another dancer, and dance the regular steps. They didn’t win anyway.
Scott finds Fran, asks her to dance, and the climax is a marvellous sequence where the villainous Barry Fife tries to stop them dancing by cutting off the music, Scott’s father starts rhythmically clapping, joined by Fran’s family, and others in the hall, as Scott and Fran dance, the music is restored, and the dance ends to rapturous applause. Then Scott’s father asks his wife to dance, and soon everyone in the whole auditorium is on the dancefloor dancing along to ‘Love is in the Air’.
It’s a perfect little film, finding the ludicrous and the beautiful in equal measure in this slightly silly pastime that can nonetheless be gloriously passionate. I love it.